Bill Morrison is an award-winning filmmaker with four titles in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. He was also awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and has received other grants that helped him finance Decasia, a 70-minute long meditation on mortality that slows down the footage (normally 24 images a second, to 8 images a second) so that you can see how decay dances on film. (See capsule review.) He mentioned Boulder filmmakers Stan Brakhage and Phil Solomon as influences and, in fact, came through Boulder as part of Don Yannacito’s First Person Cinema back in November of 2000, where he showed about two hours of the short films that preceded Decasia.
PK: How do you describe your film Decasia?
Sundance 2002 Coverage
Five Days at Sundance 2002: a festival overview
23 Capsules: Sundance 2002 capsule reviews
Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank: an interview with lovable subjects of American Movie, both working in new films showing at Sundance 2002
BM: Well it’s not the normal film seen here at Sundance, there are no actors in it, at least no living actors, it’s all made up of archival footage – a specific kind of archival footage that has been badly deteriorated. I’ve chose a lot of footage from various archives including the Library of Congress, the Swiss Cinematheque, the George Eastman House, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Fox Movietone collection at the University of South Carolina. Mostly, between these five archives and a couple other collections, I’ve made a piece that runs concurrently with a 70 minute symphony by Michael Gordon, called Decasia. It basically uses the film and the deterioration to the film as the primal language of the piece. The deterioration serves two functions, first it interacts with the music in an interesting way, almost like animation, it provides another surface, but it also interacts with the image. The images were chosen to show man’s relationship to his own mortality. Of course, when these shots were taken almost 70 – 100 years ago they were in pristine condition and the people in them had no idea that all these years later they would look like they do now. In my view it’s a testament or analogy to our own human experience where our will or our subjective experience believes in some way that we are immortal, and we are able to continue with our lives, ironically, tragically, heroically, in spite of the fact that we are decaying. I don’t mean to pass judgement on it. It can be quite tragic, but it can also be quite beautiful. And this is a film of extraordinary beauty.
PK: At some screenings people thought you had manipulated the film to make it look the way it does, but this is not the case – all the abstractions are the result of natural deterioration and were organically created.
BM: Deterioration takes on many different forms. Sometimes it’s been solarized. Sometimes it’s due to water. Any number of things can happen and any number of textures might result. I’ve slowed each frame down, tripling the length of each shot by three so that you can see each frame as a painting that goes by.
PK: How would you feel if your film were picked up by a distributor who then tried to market it as a “trippy” ride?
BM: I wouldn’t have any objection to the people who came, whatever their reason. If it’s your thing to go to the movies stoned, that’s great and, yeah, this is would be one that would lend itself well to that with a healthy life on the midnight film circuit. I’m not condoning it or condemning it, everyone has their choice to make as to how they want to view their entertainment and what to do with their recreational time. Certainly this film will be called trippy, and the music is really intense. It’s by Bang On a Can composer Michael Gordon, an extraordinary symphony of decay. I compiled a piece of film from the archives that I had been researching, maybe an hour long worth of material, and gave it to him last May and he wrote the symphony over the course of the summer. Then I edited to his music and then the Swiss 55-piece Basel symphony performed it in November. We did a surround sound recording of that in Basel, which is what is heard on the film now. We then edited to that version, the live version. We have a digital Dolby soundtrack that sounds fantastic and has incredible bass. It’s quite an experience. Your mind does wander on it. Like your mind might wander in an altered state on a controlled substance.